WINE COUNTRY, Napa Valley, Calif., October 28, 2017 – The recent wildfires in Napa and Sonoma Counties destroyed far more than shrubs and trees. They destroyed vineyards, wineries, hotels, homes, businesses and lives as well.
For those living in Napa, Sonoma, Lake, and Mendocino Counties, generally known as California’s wine country, wine is a way of life. Depending on where you live, the importance of wine might be hard to grasp. But for those living in the Napa and Sonoma wine regions, it is woven into our lives the way wheat or corn is the integral lifeblood of a mid-western farmer.
Everything we do here in wine country revolves around wine as a product that we sell. But it is also a part of our lifestyles. Think about remarkable experiences in your life. For those who live here, wine is always a part of these life experiences.
Having just flown back from Champagne, France, the case of wine that I brought back was not merely something to drink. It was a memory like a photograph or a video might be. I taste the wine and remember walking through the caves, the smell of fermenting wine in my nose and the feeling of the damp chalk on the side of the cave as I run my hand along its walls.
The Wildfires in Napa and Sonoma Counties: Our wines are our memories and our lifeblood
As the recent fires, Atlas Peak, Patrick, Nuns, and Tubbs – the most destructive wildfires in California history – began to consume the mountains and vineyards, the threat came too close for most of us to stay. In the heat of the moment of deciding what to take and what to leave, that case of Champagne was on my list.
For everyone up here in wine country, the vineyard owners are farmers, just like farmers whose crops are corn, or wheat or soybeans. Wine is everything. Without their crops, our vineyard owners have nothing. Vineyards destroyed by the wildfires will take years to rebuild. You can’t just replant and have fruit the next year. It takes time, a minimum of four years. Not having a product to sell for four years will destroy those that lost everything in the fire.
Without the wineries here, tourism comes to a standstill. In 2016, Napa Valley’s visitor industry alone generated $80.3 million in tax revenues. Hotels, restaurants, tourism companies are all seeing bookings cancel. From the bakeries to the dress shops, to the banks and coffee shops, each of the towns in this region depends on wine tourism. Without wine, life in the months and perhaps years ahead will be akin to a Rust Belt steel mill or factory closing, leaving countless workers and familes to leave town to find work as restaurants and shops close.
As the recent wildfires consumed whatever was in their path, the smoke consumed choked the air. I had to leave, not just my home but Napa, because, fires be damned, life had to continue, and I had a business appointment in Chicago, my hometown. But how can I leave when out-of-control wildfires threaten everyone and everything?
I contemplate this as I sit on the plane waiting to take off, my heart heavy.
Everything I own is 100% at risk. Yet the need to flee is strong. Even though this is a work trip, I will have a precious few hours on Sunday to see my family, hug them, and tell them I love them. I am frozen in my seat. The doors to the airplane shut and the smell of smoke and my fear dissipates.
Outside the tiny airplane window the smoke, heavy and thick, can be seen clearly. The horror and fear of the past few days racing through my head, I focus on both the task at hand and the chance to see those I love most. I hold my breath as we race down the runway heading east.
The plane’s wheels go up, I exhale, and tears roll down my face. Everything from the past few days begins to sink in as the last few days replay in my mind.